Lucy went on display today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and there was no way I could resist paying her a visit. I went in to the exhibit with very mixed feelings about it. A lot of people, including quite a few scientists I respect, have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the exhibit. Richard Leakey called the trip “a form of prostitution” and “a gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity.” Several museums have refused to display the fossil, and the Ethiopian community is calling for a boycott of the exhibit.
Their concerns are hardly unreasonable. Lucy’s bones are very, very old and very, very fragile. Displaying her does involve some risk, particularly in a traveling exhibition that requires packing and unpacking the bones several times. There is no other Lucy. She’s unique. She’s a valuable - priceless - scientific specimen. The opponents of the exhibit think that the risk to the remains is simply too great to justify the exhibit.
For all I know, they might be right. I can tell you this, though. When I walked over next to the display case and looked down at Lucy, all of those concerns evaporated from my mind, replaced by a sense of pure awe.